It’s no longer about just making the playoffs. It’s no longer about going out in the first round and improving for next year. It’s no longer about just simply making it to the finals. For the New York Rangers, it is now time to bring the Stanley Cup back to New York City. With the moves they’ve made this season and the way they’ve been playing, their goal is now evident. For the 2014-15 New York Rangers, it’s either win the Stanley Cup, or bust.
This last month has been one of the best stretches of Rangers hockey in decades. They have gone 9-3-1 since beating Arizona on Feb. 26 at the Garden. They haven’t allowed many goals against them and they have been scoring. Cam Talbot has been a rock in goal and has shown that he can be a number one goalie somewhere in the future. He has provided stability in the net while Henrik Lundqvist healed from his vascular injury. Many analysts said the Rangers would free-fall in the standings without “The King” in net; well the “The Goalbuster” has been just fine and has helped lead the Rangers to second place in the Eastern Conference, first place in the Metropolitan Division and second place overall in the league.
Talbot has proved all his critics wrong and he will get a well-deserved rest. Lundqvist is set to make his return this Thursday, backing up Cam Talbot against the Ottawa Senators and will get his first start this weekend either against the Boston Bruins on March 28 or the Washington Capitals on March 29. The Rangers will be getting the best goaltender in the world back in their net and the fact that he can get some games under his belt before the playoffs is huge. He will obviously have some rust and playing the end of the regular season will help rid him of whatever rust might plague him. The Rangers will need Lundqvist to be in top form come playoff time.
The Rangers look a bit different from the last time Lundqvist played with them. The day before the NHL Trade Deadline on March 2, General Manager Glen Sather pulled off a blockbuster of a trade. Sather traded top prospect Anthony Duclair, defenseman John Moore, a second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and a conditional first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft to the Arizona Coyotes for All-Star defenseman Keith Yandle, defenseman Chris Summers and a fourth-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Yandle is one of the NHL’s best defensmen.He is a monster of a puck mover and always finds seams in the opposition in which to thread his passes. On the powerplay, Yandle is one of the best due to his ability to always find the open man and his ability to get shots through to the opposing goaltender. He makes plays, is precise and deadly with the puck and rarely commits costly turnovers. Acquiring Yandle was a game changer. Make no mistake; the acquisition of Keith Yandle gives the Rangers the best defense in the NHL. Yes, that’s right, the best.
Yandle, along with Captain Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Kevin Klein and Dan Boyle, are the best core top six defensemen in the league and when healthy are an absolute nightmare of a unit to try to get past. Yandle has helped solidify the defense of the Rangers greatly since his arrival and over the past few games has started to look a lot more comfortable on the team than he did when he first arrived. He will only continue to grow with the team and be a great asset to have come playoff time. The Rangers in general can throw out any of their defensive pairs on the ice and know that they will be alright.
Does the loss of top prospect Anthony Duclair hurt the Rangers? Yes and no. The kid has an insane amount of talent and in my opinion will be a top goal scorer in the NHL in a few years. I think the combination of Duclair and Coyotes prospect Max Domi will give the Coyotes a great offensive force in the years to come. Of course, this is all projection and the Rangers, at their current stage, don’t have time to hope a prospect will develop into a goal scorer.
Their window to win the Cup is in the next few years. Acquiring Yandle helps them now and increases their chance to win a Cup immensely. Lundqvist is 33, Martin St. Louis is 39 and Rick Nash is 30. The Rangers window to win a Cup is now and yes, Duclair may have helped in the future, but when you have a team like the Rangers do, Yandle could be the final piece to a championship puzzle. When you have the chance to acquire someone like that you take it.
Sather also traded forward Lee Stempniak to the Winnipeg Jets for prospect Carl Klingberg and traded a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft to the San Jose Sharks for center/forward James Sheppard. In Klingberg, the Rangers get a 24-year-old prospect that could help them in the coming years. In Sheppard, the Rangers get a very versatile forward who can play center or wing and wins over 50 percent of his faceoffs. The Rangers have been a horrible faceoff team all year and Sheppard can help them in that category greatly. He is being used on the fourthline as a winger currently but his faceoff skill can be useful in certain situations. Both were quality acquisitions made by Sather and didn’t cost a whole lot.
This group the Rangers gives them the chance to do something very special and it shows in the way they have been playing. Players have been stepping up when they have to, key injuries haven’t slowed them down and they find ways to win games whether it’s a tight-checking, low-scoring contest or a goal fest.
One of the players I’d like to spotlight is Kevin Hayes. The rookie, who the Rangers signed as a free agent over the summer, has been nothing short of spectacular recently. He sees the ice a lot better than he did earlier in the season and now uses his size and skill to greatly help the Rangers on a nightly basis. His play has greatly improved over the course of the season and he is the reason why Anthony Duclair became expandable according to Sather. Sather said signing Hayes was essentially like getting a first round prospect, which is very true since Hayes was originally drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks. Hayes has a bright future ahead of him with the Rangers and he will be an important piece for years to come.
The New York Rangers have been winning games all season, and at their current pace will win the Metropolitan Division and could possibly take home the Presidents’ Trophy as well. The return of “The King” will only help them in their quest. The last time the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy was in 1994 and well… we all know what happened that year. If the Rangers can keep playing at the ridiculously high level they have been, and Lundqvist returns to form soon after his return, New Yorkers could very well be seeing a parade down the Canyon of Heroes this coming June, I for one, can’t wait for the playoffs.